Surprisingly moving for a film assembled from such familiar scenes, Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins mushes together queasy/quirky indie family drama with the beats of a romantic comedy. You know the outline just from eyeballing the poster: Kristen Wiig’s Maggie and Bill Hader’s Milo find their way toward loving each other after a wary start. Then, not long after they’ve found each other, and after Johnson has stopped positioning them on the far opposite sides of the frame, and after we’ve had the chance to relish their giddy togetherness, backstory must rip them apart.What’s singular here isn’t that the stars are playing brother and sister, or that they stir such sublime and anxious joy from each other. It’s that the real love story isn’t even between the damaged-but-lovable characters. It’s between two profoundly depressed people and life itself.
Most of the laughs come from well-observed human behavior: Milo moves into the home of his estranged sister Maggie, where he studies the cracks in her marriage to a nice guy (Luke Wilson) neither respects. The best scenes come as the siblings discover how to be around each other — and get close to discovering how to be, period. Getting high on nitrous oxide sets the siblings into confessions and fart-dancing on the floor of a dentist’s office, and the scene is long and nourishing, stirring that feeling of raw, unguarded safety you might share with the people who have known you best and longest.
Even the obligatory out-of-nowhere musical number has the power to seize viewers’ guts. To haul Maggie out of the foulest of moods, Milo lip-syncs to the only god-awful ’80s synth-pop hit that hasn’t yet been mined for a nostalgic movie moment. (But it was in Mannequin.) Director Johnson and his cast hit a chord of feeling more complex than those on the soundtrack. Milo’s funny as he fake-sings but also annoying, and when the chorus hits, Maggie — furious, unwilling to crack — refuses to join him. Johnson lets the full song play out, and we witness the characters negotiate their moods, their pride, their present, and their past in what feels like real time.
Not everything is so shrewdly judged. Hader’s Milo is gay, and the character is dramatic and performative, but I still doubt he would bust into Maggie’s bedroom — where she’s sleeping with the husband who just met Milo a day or so before — and carp drunkenly about his failure to find “cock” in his hometown bar. (Also dispiriting: Milo, given a job clearing brush at a dam, chirps, “Do I get a sexy outfit?”)
Still, The Skeleton Twins confirms the good sense of Kristen Wiig. Rather than go bigger and bigger in sequels and studio comedies, she goes deeper into character. Her Maggie holds her face blank, not trusting the world to know anything of her except her occasional rages. Tenderly, exhibiting a rare understanding of prickly nervousness, Wiig reveals the uncertain soul trembling beneath the impassive mask. Skeleton Twins isn’t perfect, but it cuts to the bone.